Been a big fan of Jeff's since the mid '90s. Think you're doing a great job with Jeff in most areas, except for one thing – wins. I know I'm stating the obvious, but Jeff only has 1 win in almost 80 races, since Charlotte '07. Early in 2009, Jeff was in contention several times, and he should have won at least a couple of them. You were robbed in New Hampshire.
However, later in the season, when the 48 team was coming on strong, the 24 team no longer was close to a win. What happened? Three words come to me as the reason: In-race adjustments. Whatever the reason, you guys started off good in most races, then faded from there. What do you as a team plan to do, to improve this issue? Thanks.
Michael, you've made a great point: in-race adjustments are what we need to work on most. I think it stems from communication between Jeff and myself. We communicate well as friends but when we get in the heat of the moment and the frustration level rises, I don't do a very good job of getting Jeff to give me specific information I need. As his frustration rises, he becomes more animated but less detailed, and I need details, not animation! So we spent a lot of time over winter specifically dealing with our in-race communication and describing where we're at with the car, good or bad, and I hope we see more of what we saw in the last few races of 2010.
In Fontana, we didn't have an opportunity to show how good a car we had but we had a good one. In Las Vegas we did a great job, and although it didn't work out at the end, Jeff and I were pleased with the car's performance. We had a strategy, we stuck to it, it didn't work out, but we know how to give ourselves a good enough car.
You looked to have the best Hendrick car for most of the Daytona 500. Was that a one-off or was there a significant change in policy in the of-fseason?
Well, here's a message to Andrew and everyone: There were significant changes over the off-season. Jeff and I sat down and started with the very basic question of, “Does he think I can do the job of crew chief?” and once he stated his faith in me, I went to work. We know what kind of equipment Jimmie Johnson has, what kind of equipment Mark Martin has, and Jeff and I regard it as a personal as well as professional duty to keep up with them. From Dec. 1, 2009, we worked harder over those two non-racing months than any similar period I can remember, and I'm hoping it pays off. At Daytona, it did pay off: I feel we had the best Hendrick car. In Fontana, I believe we had the best Hendrick car again. And at Las Vegas, yet again. So I feel we're doing a better job and we need to continue to do that and get back to Victory Lane. Running good but not getting to Victory Lane can only serve you for so long: you have to get results, and that's what we're going to focus on.
At Daytona, there weren't many cars that could both work their way through the pack and also lead strongly in clean air. Would you agree and do you have an explanation? Thank you and good luck.
That's an accurate observation, Keith. With the larger restrictor plates, and the smaller rear wicker and the bigger rear shocks, that combination made them very tough cars to drive (which made for a great race!). I'm not a fan of easy-driving cars; I believe we have the best drivers in NASCAR at Hendrick Motorsports, that's what they get paid to do and I love to watch them drive. And that's why I agree with you. There were cars at Daytona that could lead well, had a lot of speed built into them, but they weren't the most comfortable to drive. So once they got back in the pack, they don't have the air to use their aerodynamic advantages, they lose downforce at the front and sideforce on the quarter-panels, they become a handful and very quickly. So that's what you saw at Daytona.
For the first time in a long time, it reminded me of open-wheel cars in the Indianapolis 500. We could have easily made our 24 car faster, but every time I turned a wrench, it got less driveable. It was really a fun week, because in the 150 duels, we made it a little too driveable, not quite fast enough, which dropped us down the pack and that put us into a wreck. So, for the 500, we told Jeff he was going to have to bite down all day and make it happen with a less easy car, and that's absolutely what he did. It wasn't the most driveable thing we've ever given him, but we had good speed and, unfortunately, it didn't fall our way.
So yeah, I think your observation is accurate: the cars you saw showing well at the front of the field are definitely not the cars you'd want if you got in the middle of a pack.
Everyone bitching about wings were made to look pretty stupid at Daytona. There was some great racing… Do you think replacing them with spoilers will make that much difference?
I believe there are multiple reasons we're getting rid of the wings. I think aesthetics play a part – the car will look better with a spoiler. There are definitely aerodynamic changes that will happen. But I agree with you Robert, that 500 was definitely the best show we've had at Daytona with the wing. However, I have a lot of faith in NASCAR and the competitors that when we put a spoiler on the car, we'll get it figured out. It may take a race or two, but we will very quickly put on as good of a show as we did at Daytona. I think the spoiler is necessary at a downforce track, and we could argue back and forth about what you'd want at Daytona, but I do know that to run parallel developments and have a wing on for some races and spoiler on for others just isn't economical or realistic.
Sorry about what happened at Daytona. Thought Jeff was looking good for another win. But I wanted to ask you about that blade that runs down the left of the rear window. How much is it affecting the side-draft? The No.43 just seemed sucked 'round when Jeff went past, and there were other incidents like that all through the race.
Great question. First of all the blade is there for absolutely the right reason: we've seen cars get upside down in a hurry, and what that blade does is increase the deceleration of the car in a spin, during the transition from straight ahead to 90deg. If a Sprint Cup gets sideways at 165mph or above, it's getting airborne – that's basic physics – and that blade slows the car down faster. However, while it also creates more sideforce and gives the driver some grip, a driver also tends to use that grip, lean on the car harder, and when Jeff went past AJ Allmendinger, side-drafting him, he took away that side force that was holding the right-rear of the 43 car down, and around he went. I think that is a cost of that side-blade, but the drivers are just going to have to get used to it and prepare for it because that blade is absolutely necessary to have safer racing at places like Daytona and Talladega.Teams speak about how much time they spend on the Daytona 500 car(s). Exactly how is the extra time put into preparing this car different from preparing the cars for the rest of the season, including the other three restrictor plate races?
Sam, I've got to say that's almost become a myth. We used to spend a tremendous amount of time on Daytona 500 cars back when we only had a few templates and a lot of areas to work in. Now, a Daytona 500 car doesn't really get a lot more time in preparation, but what does get more time is Daytona itself because of how long we're there. You have to have a 500 car, a Bud Shootout car and a 150 Duel car – so much track time with practices, too – that you have to have a really competitive third car. That's three speedway cars that you prepare for one trip down to Florida!
So, it's no longer about how much time you spend on one specific car: it's the depth you have on your bench. You have to have a lot of good equipment. I think you saw it this year: the 24 car got wrecked in the 150, so we rolled out our Bud Shootout car which had been wrecked in that Shootout and which had been sent home to get repaired. And then we had a great car in the 500. Jimmie wrecked his 48 in the last practice leading up to the 150 and then won the 150 in his backup car. That's what I'm talking about: you need more than one bullet in your gun if you're going down to Daytona for Speedweeks. You can tear up a lot of stuff, really fast.
OK, I know you're gonna be beating yourself up about the Vegas race. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, buddy! At least you were the quickest car there. I think what's been real impressive – and a big change from last year – is that the 24 is the only Hendrick car that's been strong in all the races. What changed in the off-season? Is it a new setup? Is it Jeff changing his style? He's looked/driven like a new man.
First of all, thanks for the support John. I have been beating myself up. I feel I personally let the 24 team down in Las Vegas. I stood up and made the decision, I stand by that decision – I'm not a Monday morning quarterback – but it's crystal clear that it was the wrong decision for the time as far as the results go. With all the facts that I had laid in front of me at the time, I feel it was a reasonable pit strategy that didn't work out.
As far as what changed since last year, it's what I've tried to give the team: direction and desire. That's what I feel the team lacked, and that's what we've worked on. There's no magical shock, there's no magical spring, no magical setup. What we have is a group of people who go to a racetrack every week to win – every practice, every qualifying, every race – and that includes Jeff and myself. We're in the group, we meet with them constantly and we now have direction and desire. We want to win the championship and our desire is there every week, and you've seen that in all the races so far, and the important thing is to maintain that through the long, long season.
Seriously: Vegas – what were you and/or Jeff thinking?!
Well Bryce, that's to the point – and also a very relevant question. To have a car that leads 219 of the 267 laps and doesn't bring home the victory, it's legitimate to ask for an explanation as to why we finished third. The thinking was this:
Earlier in the race, we had 10 laps on our tires, we did a gas-only stop and the lap times were actually faster in the next stint for about 23-25 laps and then they fell off. I felt that being faster for 23 laps with only 45 to go was going to be enough, so we chose to pit and take right-side tires only. The call wasn't a bad one – the second-placed car of Harvick finished with only fresh right-side tires, the fourth-placed car did the same. So the only car with four new tires around us was Jimmie Johnson. The mistake I made was that there were so many lapped cars between Jimmie and the third-placed car entering pit road that we had a little bit of a head start. If I'd realized that, it would probably have swayed my decision toward changing all four tires.
But as far as lap times, time left in the race, tire fall-off and pace in clean air, I felt that we'd made the right decision. I'll take clean air, and I'll take it again and it might not work out again, but that's my game plan for the season. At tracks where you sometimes change just right-side tires, like Michigan, Charlotte, Fontana and Indy, we'll do whatever we can to put the 24 in the front two rows and if it doesn't work out, I'll take it on the chin and we'll go and do it again the next race.
But, I appreciate the question: people have a right to be upset – I'm upset with the result of that race. But I stand behind the methodology of my call, because it was based on the facts I had.
Jeff was so dominant in Vegas but I was wondering. How would the car have worked in traffic? Is it an all-or-nothing situation where you send a car out with a setup that's awesome for running alone and you just cross your fingers that he doesn't have a bad stop that leaves him 10th? Or was the 24 so strong he could have worked through the pack whatever?
Well that's the million-dollar question, isn't it Marti? That is the reason that the 24 took on right-side tires only. We didn't have to pass many cars that day and you don't want to find out with 20 to go that you can't! No one had passed us for the lead all day long, we thought it was necessary to be the first car on pit road. The answer is, I don't have an answer. OK, I feel that we would have been good in traffic but I truly believe that if you come out of the pits seventh or eighth, I don't know if we'd have been strong enough to pass six or seven cars. We led all day long, but there were moments in the race when we didn't have the fastest car, so…who knows?
All this talk about the spoilers replacing the rear wings and that's going to make racing better. Hope so. But how much of a difference does it make to you as crew chief? Does it mean a ton of other adjustments? Would cars burn through tires quicker (like they don't enough already;-)) if adjustments weren't made in other areas? What are the big areas affected? Good luck.
Man, we had some real good questions this month! I like answering ones that help fans understand the details better, so thanks, Les. I think the spoiler's going to change the downforce, not only balance-wise but also total, and the effect will alter both in and out of traffic. I know what it does in the wind tunnel, and I can have an educated guess as to what it's going to do on the racetrack, and I'm excited to get to the Charlotte track and prove – or disprove! – our theory. I think Goodyear is going to have to go back to work a little bit, I think our corner speeds are definitely going to be up so it's definitely going to be different. But they're doing it for the right reasons, I welcome change and I have a lot of faith because Hendrick Motorsports has a lot of very, very smart engineers and they already have a very good plan regarding what we're going to have underneath our racecars to make them balanced.
I know I'm biased, but my reasoning is this: if NASCAR didn't change the rules, Hendrick has the smartest people and some of the best drivers and the best owner to give his support to work to the limits of what we have. And, if they do change the rules, as in this case, we have that same group of people and they can adapt quicker. If people – and this doesn't include the NASCAR rule makers – think that new regs will level the playing field, or help one team catch another, they're mistaken. It won't alter the usual cycle of one team being stronger than another at certain parts of a season, certain tracks, and so on. Hendrick has crew chiefs who work great together, drivers who work great together, and an owner who stands shoulder to shoulder with us and telling us that we can have whatever we can to make us better and we have a little bit of momentum which will show through, whatever the rules are.
I wanted to start off by saying “Way to Go, Steve!” You and your team made such an awesome racecar for Jeff at LVMS. I haven't seen the 24 be that dominant in a long time. I have been a fan of Jeff's since 1994 and it was so great to see him back up front where he belongs.
I just wanted to let you know that I am a Jeff Gordon fan but I'm also a Steve Letarte fan. I believe in you Steve and pray God gives you wisdom and reassurance. I know you are under a lot of pressure and you see the way people crucify you sometimes in the media but please remember you are an awesome crew chief and someone out here is lifting you up in prayer every week.
I appreciate your kind words and sentiments, Ronnie, and as you've seen from my previous answers, we'll be trying 101 percent to keep that 24 where you want it!
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